Last week I was in Atlanta changing the world by building a playground for the children of Nesbit Elementary School in Tucker, Georgia. The community-service event was a joint effort organized by our company's corporate citizenship department and Kaboom — a nonprofit dedicated to saving play for America's children.
Altogether, there were more than 800 volunteers, mostly from my company, who came together as one amoebic mass to build playground equipment, raised bed gardens, picnic benches and more. There were crews dedicated to painting basketball courts, some were tasked with moving hundreds of cubic yards of mulch, while others mixed more than 70,000 pounds of concrete by hand. Of the more than 2,000 playgrounds previously built by Kaboom, this was the largest ever.
The day began at 5:30 a.m. with breakfast and a bus ride to the school. Admittedly, I was a little apprehensive about what the rest of the day would bring. Having been a mulch-shoveler in a similar community service event a year earlier in New Orleans, I was expecting a grueling marathon of work and blisters.
Once everyone arrived, we heard a few inspirational words from the school's principal, Clayborn Night. He told us about the children, their aging playground and what it meant to every child that so many people had dedicated time to help make their lives better.
Hearing his words removed any previous anxiety I might have had about my participation and replaced it with a renewed focus on the task at hand. Our team spent the first 30 minutes discussing and arguing about construction methods. Needless to say, you get 10 men standing around a pile of lumber and hardware and it's inevitable that there will be 10 different plans of attack.
That said, once we agreed, we set to the task of attaching beams to posts and rafters to beams. The only mishap was when one of my co-volunteers dropped a small 4x4 redwood support brace on my head. Fortunately, as my haters would agree, there's nothing above my neck to damage.
Throughout the day, several teachers brought their students out to see the progress and to thank us for our effort. As fellow volunteer Gretchen Rollins said, “Instant gratification never felt so good!”
During lunch, we were entertained by a group of fifth-graders who performed a “thank you” song written by one of the teachers. Night joined the students mid-song to emphatically rap one of the verses. My eyes got watery — probably from the onions in the sandwich.
As ours was not one of the most taxing projects, my group finished with plenty of time to get involved elsewhere. I did manage to avoid the mulch pile. Having had that experience last year, I rationalized it as a once-in-a lifetime experience that someone else should get the privilege of enjoying.
I instead opted for smashing metal stakes into the ground, which ultimately provided me with the prerequisite blisters that are worn as badges of honor by every participant.
During the ribbon-cutting ceremony, our senior vice president of sales commented on who got more out of the event — the students or the volunteers.
And when Night called his kids “the world's next leaders,” I got to thinking about how the hundreds of volunteers may have done a lot more than build a playground at an elementary school in suburban Georgia.
Sure. The physical things we built will help those kids and the community right away. But more importantly, I believe our volunteerism set an example of service that a few of those “future leaders” will take with them far beyond the fences of the playground.
Being a positive role model is a huge part of the real work one does when volunteering. In one day, our group of 800 showed a bunch of impressionable minds how much good can come when people gather together as a cooperative and focused group.
GARY HUERTA is a Glendale resident and author. He is currently working on his second novel and the second half of his life. Gary may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.